Back to the 80s: The Business of Agents

by | 09.16.2016 | 2:08pm
Lee Eaton

As visitors stroll through the barns at this year's Keeneland September Sale, there are colorful shingles hanging from every corner, branded baseball caps and color-coordinated baskets of hanging flowers, helping brand each consignor's offerings. Thoroughbred auctions haven't always had a consignors' index at the front of each catalogue with dozens of company names, however.

John Williams, longtime bloodstock agent and former general manager at Spendthrift Farm, remembers the days when horses were almost always brought to sale off the farm that bred them or boarded their dams. Breeder Lee Eaton saw an opportunity there.

“A lot of the farms didn't want to mess with [selling horses themselves],” said Williams. “Lee became the go-to agent. I lay most of the credit for the innovative procedures in the lap of Lee. I probably had a little more natural horsemanship than Lee did, but Lee was brilliant.”

Williams made the first part of his career in his native Maryland, and occasionally transported horses from the farm to sales in Kentucky. In 1967, he met Lee Eaton on such a trip, and Eaton was so impressed at the condition of the horses Williams was bringing from Maryland, he started pestering Williams to move to Kentucky. Finally, five years later, Williams interviewed with Olin Gentry, Brownell Combs, and Hillary Boone, hoping very much to work for Gentry. Gentry hired Spendthrift's then-general manager, and Williams was offered the top position at Spendthrift.

“He chose Johnny Cinnamon, and I wind up with Johnny Cinnamon's job,” said Williams. “It was the most magical thing in the world, those years at Spendthrift.”

John Williams stands next to a pair of Exclusive Native's shoes in his office in Versailles, Ky.

John Williams stands next to a pair of Exclusive Native's shoes in his office in Versailles, Ky.

Williams remembers absorbing everything he could from his time at Spendthrift, where he stayed for nine years, overseeing the sale of 200 yearlings and the foaling about 250 mares annually. He managed a breeding operation that encompassed 45 stallions, including Triple Crown winners Affirmed and Seattle Slew. When he left in 1984, he heard from Eaton again, this time about becoming a partner in Eaton's sales business.

Lee Eaton wasn't the first commercial consignor of Thoroughbreds, but he was certainly among the most innovative. The cards buyers fill out for consignors today with a record of their name and the yearlings they looked at were created by Eaton. When Eaton realized he recognized more faces than he did names, he also made a photo book that could sit in the barn office with buyers' photographs. When he saw someone coming, he'd duck into the office to refresh his memory before striding up to tell them how glad he was to see them again.

Eaton may have been one of the first consignors to set up a computer in the tack room during sales, too. Williams remembers him getting some heckling for that one.

The branded hats and pens so common at modern sales weren't one of Eaton's innovations; Williams traces that giveaway branding to Tom Gentry, who was even known to give away branded watches. Gentry was another early pioneer of the consignment business and known for his lavish parties that included lobster, champagne, and entertainment from that year's radio hit list.

One of the early challenges for Eaton-Williams was figuring out how to get horses in their consignment prepped in a uniform way without sending them all to the same farms weeks in advance. Williams helped design suggested guidelines for a yearling's first walks, first set of shoes, even his favorite treatments for rainrot and other common skin diseases. Once yearlings arrived, Williams had his staff pull manes and fit horses for custom-sized halters to give everyone the same look.

Eaton-Williams was one of the early outfits to hire professional showmen to walk and stand horses at the sale. It was also one of the first companies to hire women to show horses. When Williams began at Spendthrift in the mid-1970s, it was still unheard-of for women to work on the farm, and when he joined the sales consignment, he encountered the same phenomenon. In his mind, leaving young women out of the shedrow was a missed opportunity.

One of Tom Gentry's branded watches now resides at the Keeneland Library

One of Tom Gentry's branded watches now resides at the Keeneland Library

“When I started [at Spendthrift], there wasn't a single girl in the field. When I left, 54 percent of the labor force was women,” said Williams. “I was proud of that. I said, 'the love that these girls have for the horse, by and large, exceeds what we have in most men. What a terrible thing we're missing here!'”

Like any successful consignor, Williams attributes the agency's success in its early days to the loyalty of its clients; strong supporters included Mickey Taylor, Brookmeade, Coolmore, Stavros Niarchos, Hermitage Farm, Harbor View Farm, and Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stables. Eaton distributed a price list giving clients discounts for the volume of horses they sent to the consignment and did not offer special pricing to anyone. Transparency was important in the company's success, as was trust — Eaton-Williams and Spendthrift both did pre-sale x-rays of yearlings to check for existing issues in the days before the repository. If they found something they thought made the horse unfit for sale, they scratched him, rather than foist him on an unsuspecting buyer.

Williams sold his part of the business after the company expanded. Eaton died in 2009, but Eaton Sales has kept his name and has become one of the biggest consignors in the business.

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